If a man is having an extramarital affair and eventually decides to leave his family for his new ‘love’, the wife, according to Nepali law, can file for divorce and claim alimony. Likewise, if a man seeks to end his relationship with his cheating wife, he can also get a divorce, provided the wife agrees to its terms. Of course, a woman accused of cheating might have to hear about her ‘immoral character’ for the rest of her life, while an offending husband might get away relatively easy. It was only his ‘extra libido’ acting up! But what happens if a wife, with a child, seeks a divorce from her husband when one fine day she discovers she is a lesbian at heart and wants to live with her new partner? The government forces her to stay away from her new partner. So far so bad. It gets worse. She is eventually packed off to a ‘rehabilitation center’ to “correct her sexual orientation.” That is exactly what happened in the case of Rajani Shahi, who was being held in a government-owned rehabilitation center to have her sexual orientation ‘corrected’, before being transferred to Maiti Nepal, where she had since been held like a prisoner.
Surely, there are many moral bounds Shahi might have broken—although who sets these morals and what is their ambit might still be questioned—but for a government agency (the National Women’s Commission in this case) to suggest that a lesbian has deviant sexual orientation says a lot about the state’s commitment to protecting the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community. Before the historic 2006 changes, homosexuality was a crime, with a maximum punishment of two years in prison. The country’s LGBT community secured its first substantive victory when on Nov 18, 2008 the Supreme Court directed the government to ensure equal rights to LGBT citizens and instructed the government to form a committee to look into same-sex marriage. Another milestone was the recognition of a third gender, in addition to male and female, in the latest national census (2011). These progressive developments have helped shape Nepal’s image of one of the most LGBT-friendly countries in the world. The holding of Asia’s first-ever Olympiad for LGBT community back in October further consolidated that image.
But a state organization’s involvement in forceful separation of a lesbian couple threatened to undo all progressive changes on this front. Thankfully, the Supreme Court, once again, stepped in on time. On Monday, responding to a writ petition filed by Prem Kumari Nepali, the apex court ruled that any two adults, irrespective of their gender and sexual orientation, are free to live together if they so wish. Not only has the latest SC verdict reaffirmed Nepal’s commitment to protecting LGBT rights, it could also be a landmark event in the LGBT community’s fight for legal parity with the rest of the population, clearing one more hurdle to state recognition of same-sex marriage. We wholeheartedly support the court directive and hope it will be another stepping stone towards the establishment of a truly inclusive and tolerant New Nepal.